Irish and Catholic are almost synonymous. In fact, the term Irish-Catholic is so frequently used to describe the Irish of the Republic or their diaspora descendants that some forget that the term is cultural not religious in orientation. Irish-Catholics are people of ethnically Irish lineage who celebrate the Roman Catholic faith, as opposed to the Orthodox Catholic faiths or variety of Protestant faiths. In the 21st Century, the Irish are now almost always assumed to be Catholic, unless they identify themselves as something different, such as Irish-Methodists.
But what if I told you that the Irish-Catholics were not always Irish-Roman Catholics? In fact, what if I told you that the Irish were once a despised group of Christian radicals that required their suppression and subjugation per the very same Roman Catholic Papacy to whom the Irish are so keenly loyal today? More importantly, what if I told you that everything you consider to be “Protestant” in both the Calvinist and Wesleyan sense, were Irish theological predicates well before they were English or Scottish?
Well, I am about to tell you all of that.
Buckle up, my fellow History, Politics, and Cultural Studies Nerds! We are about to go for a ride down a new rabbit hole. The Irish were once terrible Catholics.
The Irish were the first Protestants!
In fact, they probably would not be Catholic today if it were not for the English. The reason the Irish are Catholic today is because the English are not. In essence, had Henry VIII gotten his divorce, the Irish would probably be Presbyterians, much like their Celtic kin, the Scots.
Background of a Very Stubborn People: the Celtic Scots & irish
As a member of the Irish-American community, I take great pride in the fact that those of Celtic origin are a stubborn people. They had to be. Surrounded by unforgiving weather and besieged by enemies for centuries, the Irish and the Scots, genetically almost identical, needed to have a certain level of grit and unbending determination to survive.
For centuries the Scots fought the Romanized English for dominion over Great Britain. The English, while having some Celtic roots, are genetically Gallo-Roman, German, and Scandinavian (via the Normans). The genetic blend of England was the result of years of incessant warfare, to which the early Scots and Welsh (Picts) were parties. Over time, a unique, security conscious English identity emerged and took the fight to their remaining rivals on the main British isle. The Scots, once the scourge of their weak Southern neighbors, now fought for survival.
A tenuous compromise, not war, eventually ended the fighting on Britain (the United Kingdom). Still, that compromise never yielded Scottish cultural capitulation. The Scots remain proudly Scottish and culturally very different from their Southern counterparts. They are Celts.
The Irish, for their part, initially fought the Vikings of Norway and Denmark. After nearly a century of warfare, the Celts of Ireland and the Norsemen established a truce. That truce led to the formation of some of Ireland’s most famous cities and counties such as Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick. Eventually, after centuries of intermarriage with the Vikings, the Irish decided they had enough, and consequently kicked the Vikings out of Ireland. In 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf, Brian Boru, the first High King of Ireland, and my lineal namesake, defeated the Vikings and created a consolidated Christian Kingdom of Ireland.
Invasions obviously did not end there. The Norman English, having recently subdued the Scots, focused their attention on the Irish, their other regional Celtic rivals. In 1169 at the invitation of certain Irish tribes, the English landed on Ireland and never left. At that time, the English got about as far as the old Viking sea towns of Dublin and the Eastern seashore along the Irish Sea. The goal was to deprive the Irish of their traditional ability to raid the exposed English west coast at will. They succeeded.
Impaling spikes were set around the city walls of Dublin proper. Anyone who ventured past the safety of the impaling wall were said to go off on a suicidal mission, or “beyond the pale,” (the origin of the term used to describe someone who takes things too far). The rest of Ireland remained largely Irish.
The Irish remained Celtic.
Over the centuries, the Norman English melted into the Irish countryside, eventually creating long standing Irish-Norman, or Hiberno-Normans communities throughout the small country. Those Normans would become fiercely Irish. Eventually they broke away from the Anglo-Normans who remained loyal to London. Last names such as Martin/Martyn, or names with the prefix ‘Fitz,” meaning “son of” in Norman-French, as in Fitzpatrick or Fitzgerald, all derive from those brave souls who went beyond the pale and became “more Irish than the Irish.”
A unique Celtic identity in the post-Christian era emerged simultaneously in Scotland and Ireland, defined by their disdain for the English. The characteristics of Celtic society were not exclusively militaristic in nature. Parallel methods of law, trade, agriculture, and religion not only survived Anglo-Norman Catholic domination, they began to thrive as alternatives.
By the beginning of the 14th Century, the Scots found themselves in a pitched war with the English over Scottish lowland dominion. This First War of Scottish Independence, dramatized in the movie Braveheart, had a far greater global significance than most history buffs realize. It set into motion the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation of Great Britain, the rise and fall of various monarchs of the future United Kingdom, the philosophical establishment of an Independent United States, and possibly the American Civil War. It also set into motion the Irish decision to remain Catholic and the suffering that would result.
The Scottish Influence on Irish-Catholicism
The Scots were never truly conquered in the 17th Century Irish sense of submission. Rather, after the great Norman King, William the Conqueror, successfully invaded England in 1066, a series of battles ensued for total control of Great Britain. Over time, the border of Scotland and England became blurred by marriage and interwoven ruling arrangements. The North of Scotland remained decidedly Celtic; the South of England remained decidedly Anglo-Norman; the center became mixed.
Things changed in the middle of the 12th Century, when Scottish King David I introduced Anglo-Norman reforms. Those reforms were well received in both Rome and London. They included a replacement of many native Scottish rulers and institutions with English ones. While officially independent, Scotland effectively became a vassal state of England. That did not sit well with the Celtic Scots.
Meanwhile, the Irish watched events from a distance, offering some material, diplomatic, and cultural support to their Celtic kin.
When the Scots began a greater concerted effort in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries to regain both independence and reassert their Celtic identity, things got nasty, especially with the Roman Catholic Church. Initially, the Papacy remained neutral. However, in 1306 the Pope finally chose a side.
Pope Clement V excommunicated Robert the Bruce over the murder of his royal rival, John Comyn. Regional Scottish Catholic leaders knew that the murder may have been justified, but even if it were not, it hardly met the conditions for excommunication of the time. Rather, the excommunication, was granted at the request of the English King Edward I (Edward Longshanks). It was a politically calculated move by Clement at the expense of the Celts.
The Scots were now politically and militarily isolated by the Pope’s decision. Neither Robert nor the Catholic hierarchy of Scotland were happy with this decision. The seeds for Protestantism were now fed in Scotland.
For their part, the Irish remained Scotland’s only steadfast supporters.
By the middle of 1307, Edward I died and was replaced by his far less capable son, the weakling, Edward II. Chaos ensued and Robert pressed the advantage. Eventually, Robert would succeed. The English were driven out of Scotland and Robert became emboldened. Reaching out to his only effective allies throughout the War of Scottish Independence, the Irish, Robert proposed Nostra Nacio, “Our Nation.” This was to be a pan-Gaelic speaking, Celtic alternative to England’s domination of the British and Irish isles.
One nation, Ireland and Scotland, would be created.
Smelling an opportunity to regain their own independence, Ulster’s Chief, Donal O’Neil, invited Robert to invade Ireland and help rid the island of the English. In 1316, some of the Irish went so far as to crown Robert as High King of Ireland. The thought of a regional Celtic Empire emerged.
Robert had a legitimate claim to Ireland’s crown. Robert was a descendant of the Irish High King, Brian Boru, through his mother. His wife was an Irish princess. Consequently, Robert had a greater claim to Ireland than England’s King Edward II, who neither had an ancestral claim nor an apparent interest in the country as a whole. Thus, being crowned High King of Ireland made sense.
Nevertheless, the Irish decision angered the Vatican, which maintained that Edward II not Robert was Ireland’s rightful monarch.
When the Irish were pressed by an angry Pope to explain themselves for having embraced an excommunicated brigand like Robert over an “acceptable” ruler like England’s Edward II, the Irish responded. In 1317, O’Neil with the assistance of other Irish chiefs wrote “The Remonstrance of the Irish Chiefs” to Pope John XXII (who had since replaced Clement V).
That document brilliantly articulates the Irish perspective on the Papcy’s seeming indifference to Ireland and its needs. It also establishes the Irish and Scots as one people. Beginning with an argument countering English allegations against the Irish it ends with an appeal for freedom – for both the Irish and the Scots.
“Lest the sharp-toothed and viperous calumny of the English and their untrue representations should to any degree excite your mind against us… an Englishman may kill an Irishman or commit some other crime… and there is no punishment or correction inflicted… Therefore, on account of the aforesaid wrongs… in order to shake off the hard and intolerable yoke of their slavery and to recover our native liberty… we are compelled to wage deadly war with them… and that we may be able to attain our purpose more speedily… we call to our help… Robert… most illustrious king of the Scots, who is sprung from our noblest ancestors… we have unanimously established and set him as our king… For know, our revered Father, that besides the kings of lesser Scotia (Scotland) who all drew the source of their blood from our greater Scotia (Ireland), retaining to some extent our language and habits, a hundred and ninety seven kings of our blood have reigned over the whole island of Ireland.”
Ultimately, the Scots would lose in Ireland for several key reasons, including climate change and strategic capacity. Robert over extended himself during a climate driven famine. The Irish would remain a conquered English state and the Scots would recede. Meanwhile, a religious reform movement in Scotland began in earnest after Robert’s unfortunate experiences with the Pope. Reforms were already introduced to Scotland earlier by way of Robert’s own Norman origins.
In 1113, Peter de Bruis (Peter the Bruce), labelled a heretic at the Second Council of the Lateran, would be killed for criticizing infant baptism, the veneration of crosses, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Does the name sound familiar? It should. Robert’s paternal great-grandfather hailed from the same radicalized Bruis, France, near modern day Normandy. No doubt, he would have at least heard of Peter’s reforms.
Consequently, future Calvinist doctrine had a natural home in Scotland.
Still, going back to the “Remonstrance of the Irish Chiefs,” we find an interesting line that stands out from all the rest. The Irish blame the English invasion on the Pope. They are right.
The English were in fact granted dominion over the Irish by the Roman Catholic Church, and consequently, so too were various liberties with which the English were granted the right to mistreat the Irish.
“Know, most holy Father, that King Henry of England, who was authorized in the manner already stated to enter Ireland, and also the four kings his successors have clearly gone beyond the limits of the grant made them by the Pope’s bull…”
The Roman Catholic Church sold out the Irish!
Why would the Pope have sided with the English in the late 12th Century? The Irish were no less advanced at that time than the English. In fact, the Irish had greater ties to the Church through their libraries, written works, and trade. Irish monks effectively saved the Bible from obliteration. Irish Normans had claims just as great in France as those of the English.
So why would the Church detest the Irish so much that they sought their suppression and genetic elimination?
Two reasons: Saint Patrick the Radical and the resurgence of a mass reform movement to which the Catholic Church overreacted – especially toward questionable Catholics, like the Irish.
Ireland was embracing Protestantism before it was cool to be Protestant.
St. Patrick the Radical: Irish Women & Poor People Rejoice
Much of that which we know about Saint Patrick was written well after he passed. His utilization of the shamrock to teach the Trinity may or may not have happened. His expulsion of “all the snake of Ireland,” is an outright fable. Snakes never existed on Ireland post-Ice Age. However, as a Roman-Briton who derived from the border of Scotland, we are fortunate that Patrick, the son and grandson of clergymen, was well written. The truth is more interesting than fiction.
St. Patrick was a lady’s man and a mega radical.
After having been captured by pagan Irish pirates in the 5th Century, Patrick served as a slave for almost six years in Ireland. The slave learned from this experience: the important role of women in early Irish society. Consequently, when Patrick finally escaped captivity and returned to England, he quickly found a safer method to return to Ireland as an ordained priest and missionary.
Patrick apparently did not focus on the traditional methods of ingratiating himself with the warrior kings. Rather, Patrick seems to have established a new strategy for the long term conversion of Ireland. He focused on the next generation, not the present. In effect, he converted the children of rulers and the mothers of Ireland’s future generations.
Patrick spread the Gospel horizontally, creating a longer lasting, more pure form of Christianity through a systemic method of grass-roots conversion… and he was indicted for it by the Roman Catholic Church.
Patrick targeted females for conversion.
Patrick appears to have theorized that mothers were better religious guides than warriors. By converting mothers, they would inevitably convert their husbands and raise their children to become Christians. This was not revolutionary. As progenitors of cultural norms, mothers played a crucial role in Ancient Greece and Rome. They still play a crucial role in the development of normative behavior today. Patrick, a scholar raised by scholars, understood that women played a profound role in the spread of Christianity in the pre-Constantine Roman Empire.
Women, especially of high means, chose to commit themselves to prayer through Christ in convents throughout Ireland. Patrick encouraged their personal and willing commitment to become nuns. Again, he did not ask their fathers, husbands, or sons. He apparently does the most insane thing a man could do in the 5th Century: he asked women what they wanted to do.
Patrick was charged for the crime of being a radical.
Patrick’s trial is documented in the “The Declarations [Against Patrick]”. He was indicted for the crime of being far too aggressive in his engagement of women. Although there appears to be no evidence of sexual impropriety, Patrick was apparently guilty of other charges that were even more radical in nature. He performed FREE Baptisms. He ordained priests for FREE, and he absolved sins in a confessional for FREE. He even turned down indulgence payments (monetary compensation to reduce the penance for sins). Through free Christian “gifts,” Patrick was able to perform mass conversions of the poor. This was especially troublesome. The typical conversion method was top-down (ruler first). Patrick went grass-roots, bottom up. He even gave a say to communities, and especially rulers, as to who would lead them as bishops and priests (local investiture).
Saint Patrick was effectively accused of doing that which Martin Luther would recommend in his Ninety-five Theses more than one thousand years before the great reformer would launch a theological revolution.
Despite incurring the wrath of Rome and London, the Irish apparently enjoyed a very liberal, personal connection to Christ.
Having dispersed the Word of God so freely, priests and rulers in Ireland alike enjoyed the ability to consult the Bible directly. The Irish had a very sophisticated tradition of writing. Thus, the liberating dissemination of knowledge meshed well with an established tradition of reading and writing in Gaelic Ireland. The exemplary Book of Kells, written and illustrated about 800 AD, is just one example of that sophisticated tradition.
Having a direct relationship with the Bible was a heretical concept that led to the excommunication, imprisonment, and execution of reformers in latter generations.
Patrick apparently felt otherwise and monasteries were established quickly throughout Ireland to record and share that previously guarded information.
Ultimately Patrick was “forgiven” due to his high conversion rate. But Saint Patrick was never really liked by the Church. Despite his eventual canonization, there is little mention of Patrick shortly after his death. In official dispatches to Rome, future priests and missionaries in Ireland complain of the Irish form of Christianity and its preceding leadership. No doubt, that leadership began with Patrick. Ireland’s form of Catholicism was essentially unruly. It lacked the top-down approach more familiar with Rome.
Thus, in the 12th Century, when the English asked for the right to invade Ireland and subdue its occupants, Rome willingly granted that request. Ireland had been problematic as a Catholic territory for centuries at that point. They did not comply with the rules of a faith attempting to reassert control after years of continental conflicts that involved pretenders and anti-popes.
It was time to put the Irish in their place.
From Bad to Good to Worse
After the First War of Scottish Independence and the subsequent Irish revolt, England found very little time to breathe. Beginning in 1337 the English found themselves embroiled in the Hundred Years War. This allowed the Irish some breathing room as the rest of the continent and Britain began a prolonged struggle over French rule. The emergence of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, also hit continental Europe and England extremely hard.
Gaelic Ireland, for its part, largely avoided the consequences of both. The Anglo-Norman cities on the Irish eastern shore were hit hardest by the plague. This was largely due to the spread of disease by means of merchant ships and the confined conditions of 14th Century cities. The English within the pale died in great numbers; the Irish outside of the pale, less concentrated, lived. By the beginning of the 16th Century, Gaelic Ireland had re-established itself as a fairly independent people. So, too, did its church.
It was also beginning to entertain the ideas of radical reformers who were growing bolder, especially from nearby Scotland, which seemed to be a refuge for such radicals. Ireland was flirting with a great deal of independence. This included religious independence.
Then came Henry VIII and his desire to divorce.
For years England had remained largely supportive of the Roman Catholic Church and relations were improved greatly under Pope Pius II during the middle of the 15th Century. When Pius II was still a Cardinal he visited Scotland to amend relations between the Church and Scottish King James I. Returning as quickly as he could to England, Pius II would describe Scotland as “wild, bare and never visited by the sun in winter.” Ireland, he had learned, was worse.
Thus, it was only natural, in light of these barbarian Celts, that Pope Leo X, nearly seventy-five years after Pius’ visit, would grant Henry VIII the title, “King of England and France, Defender of the Faith and Lord of Ireland” in 1521. Interesting. Why choose “Lord of Ireland” in conjunction with “Defender of the Faith”? After all, King of England and France had already been labeled. Why not, “King of England, France, and Ireland, and Defender of the Faith”? Is it possible that defending the faith required Ireland’s subjugation? Probably.
Regardless, shortly thereafter, Henry VIII took his responsibilities seriously. After all, yet again, the Pope had reaffirmed English domination over Ireland. It was time to defend Catholicism with the oppression of those radical Irish.
Henry VIII sent into Ireland a force of approximately 2500 men (a fairly large army at the time). The goal was to suppress any potential Irish uprisings. The Irish wanted none of it and Baron FitzGerald, one of those Hiberno-Irish with which I described earlier, emerged as a legitimate contender to English authority. Now the Irish were racing toward independence in all aspects of their being.
The Catholic Church had once again become the moral supporters of Ireland’s brutal suppression.
Fitzgerald appears to have considered a Church of Ireland, much like James was beginning to establish in Celtic Scotland.
Henry VIII, Defender of the Catholic Faith, murdered FitzGerald and his children. He set about killing as many Irish nobles as he could grab. Women were raped in the name of the Catholic Church. Crops were burned. Tradesmen suspected of treason were executed en masse. All of this with the blessing of Pope Leo X. Then Henry VIII did something extraordinary: he left the Catholic Church and established the Church of England.
Just like that, England was a Protestant country!
With it, so too came the imposed order for all Irish to become Protestants, as well. The Irish who always enjoyed a unique relationship with Christ and Christianity were now forced to convert at the point of the sword. Join the Church of England or die.
Irish monasteries, once the most enlightened intellectual centers of Europe, were raided. Renegade priests were killed. Churches and clergy alike were disbanded, tortured, and/or executed for the new heresy of remaining Catholic.
How did Ireland respond? It refused to become Protestant. It stayed with a faith, Catholicism, with which Ireland had almost nothing in common diplomatically, politically, theologically, or historically.
The Catholic Cultural Conclusion
Ireland, a nation of Calvinists without knowing they were Calvinists, now chose Catholicism because they hated the English. In fact, they hated the English enough to stick with a faith that had all but guaranteed their subjugation for centuries. The stubborn Irish would stay Catholic throughout subsequent generations of oppression, murder, and enslavement. This was the Irish way of saying, “No!”
Ireland had never been much of a good Catholic country until England chose otherwise.
While some may think that Ireland was making the political gamble that remaining Catholic would encourage Spanish and French assistance with Papal encouragement, that theory is weak. There appears to be no such alleviation planned for the Irish. Although future generations of England’s enemies would find common cause with the Irish, this appears to be strategic expediency not theologically oriented. Even the various Popes of the post-Henry VIII era gave very little support to the Irish, despite Ireland’s steadfast commitment to Catholicism under enormous pressure.
For example, when the Irish created the Irish Confederacy or Confederate Ireland in 1642, a collection of Irish Catholic lords and armies set to alleviate Ireland of English domination, it asserted its commitment to Catholicism. The Confederacy received some Papal rhetorical support from Pope Urban VIII. However, the Irish were denied French support because other Catholic leaders, such as Cardinal Mazarin, recommended that the French avoid support. The Irish were untrustworthy – historically – as Catholics.
The result of Catholic indifference to Ireland was a brutal and devastating punishment exacted by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell would send 100,000 Irish nationals into permanent bondage in the Americas and killed 600,000 in a period of three years (of a population of 1.4 million). Cromwell, the great British hero of Irish subjugation was so extraordinarily brutal to the Irish that even Winston Churchill, no fan of the Irish himself, would describe him as genocidal. Churchill went so far as to blame the 20th Century animosities between the Irish and the English on Cromwell.
Meanwhile, the Vatican never condemned Cromwell. It never implored other nations to alleviate Irish suffering. Local Catholic leaders fought Cromwell, those with power did not.
Throughout those travails and many after them, the Catholic Church did nothing to help. In fact, ironically, the Holy See supported the PROTESTANT ENGLISH during the Irish War of Independence of 1919 – 1921. They implored the Irish to stop fighting for their freedom, a position that confounded Eamon DeValera. The Vatican would be one of the LAST “nations” on earth to accept the Irish Free State. In 1929, diplomatic relations would open between the Church and Ireland, but the Vatican would not accept the first Ambassador from Ireland, Joseph Walshe, until 1946. Astounding!
Still, due to that beautiful, bold, stubborn Celtic determination, the Irish – those whom never yielded, even when they had little in theological common with a Catholic Church that effectively sanctioned their murder and misery, remained steadfast, loyal Catholics simply because it pissed off the English.
If you have ever dated an Irish girl… if you have Irish children… if you have married an Irishman… you have faced that stubbornness at least once… at least.
This week the Irish will celebrate that radical “protestant,” Saint Patrick, the “not-very-good-Catholic” Patron Saint of Ireland.
And I will be right there with my Celtic kin, celebrating my Irish-Catholic heritage… even though that heritage is not very “Catholic” and the Catholic faith was not very committed to the Irish.
 Throughout this piece I am offering generalities on the subject and growth of Irish Christianity gleaned through my personal study of the subject through reading multiple books in both college and my personal time. However, this particular piece of writing by the Irish is worthy of its own study at some point. It can be found here: University College Cork, Electronic Archives, http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T310000-001.html